Here is a classic column from the backfiles…..
I am still working away here in Arizona, just over half way through an extended series of shows and I wanted to write briefly about something we don’t seem to talk often enough about in our magic books, the art and length of the show itself.
I am currently performing 75-minute shows once or twice each day. One has to pace oneself very differently for various kinds of show lengths. By most standards 75 minutes is a pretty long show. Last night I watched Michael Finney perform a killer 13-minute set at a local Casino and it got me thinking about what the difference is that a performer has to think about when faced with different lengths of performances.
I remember when I used to perform at the Magic Castle 15-20 minutes was the performance time needed, and looking back it was a very satisfactory length of time to pace a show. In the Casino last night Michael had to win over that crowd instantly and then keep them with a show that never let down the impact. Without ever appearing rushed or tight on time he achieved his goal effortlessly. It was a joy to watch.
With a 75-minute set you have to win over the crowd just as quickly but then find a way to vary the pace so that you don’t exhaust yourself or burn out the audience. I have been achieving this by doing a non-stop 30 minutes up front in my show, then slowing down the pace a little before putting the heat on for the last 15 minutes.
I have never done an 8-minute manipulative or dove act but obviously an entirely different kind of dynamic is at work. My friend Jason Andrews performs an 8½ minute show that suspends time in mid-air somewhere along with the audience disbelief. I can honestly say that the toughest shows for me to perform were when I played briefly in ‘V: the Ultimate Variety Show,’ in Las Vegas. My allotted time was ten minutes and I found it very hard to achieve the momentum needed to achieve maximum impact. I was just getting into the zone and the show was done! After a couple of shows it became easier to pace things though.
There is a very different set of tactics necessary for all these different time goals. The secret is that just as you should never appear to be rushing through a ‘short’ set you must never seem to be ‘dragging out’ a longer show. This may be the secret, however achieving it is another story. You need to subconsciously plan an arc and make a mental graph of how your performance is going to be timed and delivered.
There is little or no chance of achieving success in a shorter show while ad-libbing or being too spontaneous. Just as in a longer show, any appearance of trying to ‘get time’ out of a bit, is likely to slow down your momentum and audience reaction. All to often, I listen to performers talk about how long they can ‘milk a trick.’ This is a very incorrect way to go about the business of entertaining an audience. Rather than ‘milking’ a piece, maybe you need to put in a couple of extra shorter segments. Unless you live on a farm don’t ever think of milking anything and unless you have an elastic band or Silly Putty in your hands don’t dwell on stretching anything either.
An extension of this concept is the even more dangerous approach of allowing the size or cost of a trick to influence the way it inhabits the ‘real estate’ of your show. Audiences don’t feel that way about it that way at all. Although it is a highly subjective area, what is needed is the ability to look on each segment of each show as an energy exchange with your audience. Nothing can be taken for granted in this department and that is why it is generally easier to fill a relatively easy space of time such as 20-25 minutes and you don’t have to tackle this kind of problem until you have a better idea of the strengths and weakness of your performance ingredients.
Each performers differences are totally his own to explore and develop but the glue that keeps them together is composed of a very subtle blend of texture, shading, dynamics and variety. The ability to jump nimbly from one length of show to another is a key one for most comedic performers to ensure that they keep their datebooks filled and the checks coming in.
While it is certainly a good guideline to fully develop and realize your personality or ‘character’ as a performer, it is sometimes easy to let the matter rest there, before you understand that this character needs to be fine tuned not just to the needs of the material you are performing but also to the audiences; size, attention span and general characteristics. I have heard many a performer talk blatant rubbish about what is or isn’t correct for his ‘character’ (which should of course be an idealized version of his own personality) as if this is the key factor in determining his audience impact.
Texture, shading, dynamics and variety will take you much further.